Even Before Martin Luther King, Jr.

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I’m old enough to remember watching him on television news, old enough to remember hearing sound-bites of his speeches and being enthralled not so much by what he said as by how he said it. And I’m old enough to remember the night when the program I was watching was interrupted by a special news bulletin: “Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead. He was assassinated late today on the balcony of his Memphis hotel room. More to follow as information becomes available. Now back to your regularly scheduled program.” I was in seventh grade at the time, living in a community whose black population added up to the whopping total of 0—that's a big fat zero. Civil rights was no pressing issue in our town. Still, I remember feeling a sense of shock and a twinge of pain on that April night in ’68.

As I grew up and entered the world of preaching, I became fascinated with the preaching and speaking of Dr. King. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched and read his 1963 speech in Washington—you know, the “I have a dream” speech. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a speech or sermon that moved me more. It still moves me after all these years. From a content standpoint, has anyone ever said so much in so few words—articulating what could be and should be the true American dream? And as a preacher, has anyone said it better—the rhythm, the cadence, the images? That was soaring oratory at its finest! The fact that the speech is still seared into America’s consciousness after almost 47 years is testimony enough to its power.

So, as we remember and celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, I reflected a bit on what I’d done to advance the cause of civil rights. And here’s the sum of it: not much. I have some black friends. I’ve swapped pulpits a few times with a couple of black pastors. But I’ve never marched, never paid a price, never done anything in this area worthy of note. Not one thing.

But my grandfather Samuel Tucker McCallum did—and he did it in deep Dixie before the phrase civil rights was even in our national vocabulary. Around 1910 or 1911 a tornado swept through Union Church, Mississippi, where my grandfather was managing his father’s farm. The twister damaged some of the farm buildings. And when the storm was over my grandfather went to check on the black families who lived on the place. When he arrived at one of the houses, a mother was dissolved in tears. “My baby’s gone! My baby’s gone! The storm blew my baby away,” she cried. Granddaddy did his best to comfort her. He tried to give her hope by telling her that he had heard stories of children who had survived such things, and that he would go make careful search for the child.

And sure enough, he found the baby about fifty yards from the house. He was under a small tree, laying on his back in a puddle of water, crying to beat the band, trembling and scared, but apparently unhurt. My grandpa scooped that baby up in his strong arms, carried him back to his mama as quickly as he could, and turned her tears into a smile so big it would have taken a wide-angle lens to get it all in the picture. And that boy’s mama was so thrilled and so grateful to get her baby back alive that she changed the baby’s name right there on the spot. She said, “From now on this baby’s name is Sam.” Get it? That's my grandfather's name. And from that time forward and until his death, that boy was known by all as ‘Cyclone Sam.’

Cyclone Sam grew up to be a farmer in the area. He lived to a ripe old age and used to bring vegetables to some of my grandfather’s cousins who lived in Jackson. He never forgot what my grandfather did for him and his family. Once he even made a trip to Jackson when he heard my Aunt Martha would be there so he could greet her and personally thank her for what her father, Sam McCallum, had done for him so many years ago. And when Cyclone Sam died, my Aunt Martha and Aunt Nettie were able to attend his funeral. When the ushers heard their names, they were seated with Cyclone Sam's family and enjoyed a wonderful visit with them after the service.

The event that spawned all this took place a hundred years ago. Things weren’t good for black people in the South in those days. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his vision would do a lot to make things much better a few decades later. But it’s amazing how a simple act of compassion and love opened up doors of relationship that transcended the color of one’s skin and proved that while laws are helpful, love is even better. Oh, and you know what else? I’m pretty sure that if Dr. King had heard this story, even while in jail for his work, it would have made him smile.

This piece first appeared on Dr. McCallum's blog "Life at the Altar."

Dr. John McCallum
Pastor, First Baptist Church, Hot Springs
Resides in Hot Springs